There are choral societies and there are choral societies – and Crouch End Festival Chorus is one of the more interesting.
They shine in the stock in trade of choral societies everywhere, notching up appearances at the Proms in Mahler and at the Barbican with Britten, but they and conductor David Temple enjoy getting their teeth into more off-beat stuff. They regularly feature in Dr Who, have recently collaborated with Ray Davies, sung on Noel Gallagher’s latest success High Flying Birds, and even name check Bombay Bicycle Club in the programme: just how cutting edge can we be?
Sunday night heard them honouring Philip Glass just a few days after his 75th birthday, singing his Three Songs, along with “The Grid”, from Glass’s early Eighties film Koyaanisqatsi, beloved of art houses everywhere.
In fact you could see Glass’s micro modulations as the aural equivalent of Op Art, where precisely calibrated repetitions of near identical visual elements, trick the brain and eye into perceiving movement or shadows which aren’t really there. Glass’s ostinatos and pulsating lines pull off the same trick, suggesting rhythms and realities beyond the heard notes.
But the real meat of the evening was the world premiere of 17 Days, by James McCarthy. This 32-year old graduate of Royal Holloway University is already established enough to merit a curtain-raiser on Radio 3 that morning. The 17 days in question are those that elapsed between the trapping of 33 Chilean miners in a collapsed tunnel on 5 August 2010, and the scrap of paper that announced their survival to the outside world.
Rejecting entirely “Chilean Miners, the Opera”, McCarthy turned to poetry to provide a framework on which to hang his explorations of separation, resurrection, love, and defying death. Verses from the King James Bible bookend poems by, among others, Rupert Brooke and Emily Dickinson. The sound world is tuneful, discernibly grown from English soil – Finzi by way of Britten, bang up to syncopated modernity by the end.
This was powerfully realised by the London Orchestra da Camera’s brass ensemble, piano and percussion. Two children’s choirs augmented the Festival Chorus, who sang with utter commitment and beautiful enunciation. The overall effect was remarkably engaging: plenty of interest all the way through with lovely word setting which built, in an organic and integrated way, to a genuinely moving climax.